Judge Alan Mahon told Conor Maguire SC that suggestions the tribunal was biased and had an agenda were untrue.
If his comments were proved to be true, said the chairman, they would “completely undermine” the work of the planning tribunal.
Comments made by Mr Maguire, the chairman said, suggested the tribunal was a witch-hunt pursued by a bunch of crooks.
He said the suggestion that the tribunal consisted of three judges of on an illegal, corrupt and criminal frolic of their own was offensive — and he invited Mr Maguire to withdraw the remarks.
For nearly 45 minutes, just after the tribunal sat to hear the Taoiseach’s second consecutive day of evidence, the proceedings were dominated by a vigorous exchange between the two men. At times, members of the public clapped and cheered in support of the tribunal.
After telling the public they were not allowed to applaud, the chairman brought the spat to a close, commenting: “In order to allow all of us, especially myself, to cool down we are going to just take a 10-minute break.”
The row began after the tribunal had rejected a submission from Mr Maguire who claimed Mr Ahern was being unfairly treated at the tribunal — and that it was intruding into the Taoiseach’s personal financial affairs.
Judge Mahon claimed Mr Maguire was saying things for the purpose of getting headlines in the next day’s newspapers that “Mr Ahern’s counsel attacks the tribunal”.
The tribunal chairman said Mr Maguire’s comments contained an allegation of bias. “Now that is a disgraceful comment to make. And I absolutely reject it. And you should withdraw it because it’s quite clear [to] anybody listening to that. Any member of the public here would say this is an allegation.”
When Judge Mahon said Mr Ahern’s senior counsel was in effect accusing the tribunal of being corrupt and pursuing some sort of agenda, Mr Maguire said he had not said that.
Judge Mahon said: “You have said it. You have said it... you have used the term ‘agenda’. If we are following the agenda that you have accused us of and in effect, we reiterate now, the effect of that allegation is that you are saying that we are crooks.”
After further heated exchanges, with Mr Maguire saying the chairman was distorting what he had said, Judge Mahon went on: “... that we are conducting a witch hunt. And how can that be interpreted as anything but an allegation that these three judges are off on some sort of a frolic of their own out to do down people in a way which is unconstitutional, unfair and is in effect criminal.”
When Mr Maguire said he had accused tribunal counsel of having an agenda, the chairman asked why he had not done something about it, such as raising the point by judicial review.
As a former chairman of the Bar Council, Mr Maguire could make a complaint to that body and accuse tribunal counsel of unprofessional conduct, or he should have gone to the High Court “long ago” and said this tribunal was engaged in an agenda.
Judge Mahon added: “Of all the allegations that have ever been made against us, and many have been made, this is the most serious allegation because it is the one which, if it was established as being true, would completely undermine the work of the tribunal.”
Earlier, the tribunal has formally ruled that the Taoiseach was not prejudiced by the non-circulation of correspondence with a number of stockbroking firms regarding Fianna Fáil fundraising activities.
Former NCB stockbrokers managing director Padraic O’Connor had told the tribunal in October 2006 that as far as he was concerned a number of approaches were made to other firms and a competitor to made a donation to Mr Ahern’s constituency.
Following on from that allegation, the tribunal wrote to 11 firms seeking information about possible approaches made by former FF fundraiser Des Richardson. Yesterday counsel for Mr Ahern argued that the failure to disclose this correspondence was unfair.
Mr Maguire accused the tribunal of being an increasingly intrusive inquiry that had little to do with Quarryvale and allegations made by developer Tom Gilmartin.
Giving the ruling Judge Mahon said the tribunal was satisfied that it was appropriate for the documents not to have been disclosed.
He said the tribunal did not believe that Mr Ahern was being treated unfairly.
He added that the tribunal would facilitate the cross examination of Mr O’Connor by counsel for Mr Ahern if they wished.
But Judge Mahon said the tribunal was conscious that counsel chose not to cross-examine Mr O’Connor at his initial appearance.